When you’ve won 43% of the World Rally Championship events you’ve started, finished on the podium two thirds of the time and posted 925 fastest stage times at the sport’s highest level, you know what a good World Rally Car feels like.
Sébastien Loeb knows.
Or he used to know. As of Thursday, he’s no longer a WRC driver for Hyundai Motorsport. He’s departed Alzenau, bound for Banbury, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Dakar. But before he went, he heaped praise on the Korean team which extended his WRC career by eight rallies, two podiums and two seasons (technically a season and a bit, considering the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic…).
And he delivered a line of pure PR gold.
“For me, Hyundai Motorsport gave me the best WRC car I have ever driven, and I was glad I could compete at the highest level with the latest generation of WRC cars,” said the nine-time world champion.
This was not a moment to point out that WRC cars is so yesterday; we’re all about Rally1 cars now.
This was a moment to stand back with some surprise at Loeb’s statement, considering all 79 of his WRC wins came in a Citroën – the last one, of course, coming in the French firm’s answer to an i20 Coupe WRC, the C3 WRC (Rally Spain, 2018).
At the height of his power at Citroën, Loeb was the absolute king of that carmaker. And the relationship was at its ultimate strength during the Xsara WRC years, when the Guy Frequelin-Loeb axis of power sent shockwaves through the service park as the partnership delivered win after win after win.
And Loeb loved those cars, especially the full active and totally trick Xsara. But then came the C4, the DS3 and finally the C3. All good cars, but life just wasn’t quite the same then.
Freq left, to be replaced by Olivier Quesnel and subsequently Yves Matton, and then there was the spikey relationship with Sébastien Ogier. But Loeb’s nose was put most significantly out of joint when he was ditched from Citroën’s World Touring Car Championship squad at the end of 2015.
So, is this a late shot from Loeb to make a point with Citroën?
Possibly. Or maybe it’s a reflection on Loeb’s feeling about a whole generation of cars. Since Ott Tänak’s arrival, there’s no doubt the i20 Coupe WRC has taken a step forward (witness its sudden ability to go quickly on fast rallies) and talking to Loeb after Turkey, it was clear how much he had loved the latest specification Hyundai.
His words: “I enjoyed my career with this sport and, like I always say, it’s incredible to be able to drive these cars we have now. I really missed driving [during lockdown] and to come back to this car again [in Turkey]… you know, the things you can do with these [current] cars is just amazing. You cannot imagine what you could do on the rough stages and how we can play with the car and the performance.
“The cars when I started my career were really good, really nice, but you can’t compare them to now. The suspension, the engine management the tires even the grip and the speed we can have in the stages is just amazing compared with the past.
Regardless, Loeb’s out of there. He’s done with Alzenau and quite possibly done with works cars at WRC level. And he’s happy with the time he and co-driver Daniel Elena enjoyed alongside team principal Andrea Adamo.
Loeb: “What an adventure it has been! I am extremely grateful for the opportunity they gave me during these two years by offering me a partial program, totally in line with my expectations, within a very professional team and in a pleasant atmosphere.
“These two years have passed extremely quickly – this one having also been cut by several months as a result of the pandemic – but they will have marked part of my career, and with another manufacturer title success to which I contributed.
“Now, a new chapter will open in 2021 with Prodrive in Rally Raid.”
Adamo talked of the experience Loeb and Elena brought to his team, adding: “Ever since Séb and Danos joined our team in 2019, we have been privileged to have their wealth of expertise and experience in our team.
“All areas of our operation have benefited from their know-how, directly or indirectly.
“Their contribution helped us to fight for – and win – the championship last season. Their knowledge and commitment was perfectly demonstrated in the tougher rallies like Chile and Turkey.
“The pandemic has meant we haven’t been able to use them as we had intended this season, but their performance in Turkey was a reminder to everyone of their ever-present ability and speed.”
But, again, is that really it? Loeb’s final line leaves the door to WRC just slightly ajar.
“Who knows for WRC,” he said. “Neither Hyundai Motorsport nor I want to completely close the book for good.”
Slightly ajar? Adamo kicks it open further.
“We wish them all the best in their next chapter,” said the Italian, “and keep our doors wide open to them should they ever wish to return.”
Stranger things have happened.